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The Straight Story

An American soldier tries to get PepsiCo to answer a simple question.

12:00 AM, Jun 3, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Palmer's message adroitly omitted the most offensive elements of Ms. Nooyi's speech, but on May 18 PepsiCo released a statement from Nooyi together with the text of her speech. In her statement Nooyi wrote that her remarks had been "misconstrued."

PepsiCo subsequently issued an apology from Ms. Nooyi. In her apology Ms. Nooyi no longer blamed others for misconstruing her speech, but rather blamed herself for "unintentionally depict[ing] our country negatively and hurt[ing] people." Ms. Nooyi's apology reads:

Following my remarks to the graduating class of Columbia University's Business School in New York City, I have come to realize that my words and examples about America unintentionally depicted our country negatively and hurt people.

I appreciate the honest comments that have been shared with me since then, and am deeply sorry for offending anyone. I love America unshakably--without hesitation--and am extremely grateful for the opportunities and support our great nation has always provided me.

Over the years I've witnessed and advised others how a thoughtless gesture or comment can hurt good, caring people. Regrettably, I've proven my own point. Please accept my sincere apologies.

PERHAPS THE MOST ELOQUENT CRITIC of Nooyi's speech is "Major E." (as he asks to be identified), the military officer who wrote to Power Line from Camp Victory in Baghdad. Major E. sent us a copy of the message he had sent to PepsiCo:

I found Ms. Nooyi's graduation comments offensive, not to mention off-base, because the central theme of her speech was that America is, in essence, "flipping off the world."

I am in Iraq, and served previously in Afghanistan. Many Americans have given their lives to liberate those nations from tyranny. In that light, I offer a few examples of "fingers" in those places that might present Ms. Nooyi a more substantive representation of American presence abroad than a trivial story of a rude traveler.

For example, she could ride on a combat patrol here and use her fingers to return the waves that I see on every mission from some of the over 8 million Iraqis whose fingers were stained with purple ink following voting in the first democratic elections after decades of tyranny. She might notice her fingers moistened by sweat as she unconsciously gripped her armrest, noticing a tinge of fear from attack by a roadside bomb--the same fear felt by myself and every other American on Iraq's roads.

In Afghanistan, many children and parents stick their thumbs straight up when Americans pass, demonstrating gratefulness for no longer living under the Taliban. I drove by Kabul University a while back and saw two young girls using their fingers to carry the books that represent the freedom to pursue education now enjoyed by Afghan women.

Now, a question that begs an answer: Does Ms. Nooyi consider that freedom an example of America "giving the world the finger," or "giving the world a hand?"

In the meantime, I will stop consuming PepsiCo products and encourage others to do the same. Please remember, it is this country, and the brave men and women who defend it, that provided the free enterprise system that allowed your company to become a global corporate power. I would hope that Pepsi senior executives would show more respect for this great country. Perhaps the troops who enjoy your products would hope so as well.

I respectfully ask for a serious response, not the "promised land" public relations pabulum response offered on behalf of Ms. Nooyi. Please mail it to my address here in Baghdad.

Major E. first received a form response from PepsiCo public relations. He responded:

Thank you for the email form letter response to the letter that I submitted. I am disappointed that you did not answer the single question that was posed.

In her apology, Ms. Nooyi admits making a "thoughtless comment," but the fact is that this was a prepared speech that had a carefully-crafted theme about America's role in the world, with an extended metaphor of the fingers. These were not spontaneous remarks, which is the main cause of my concern. The underlying values indicated by the speech surprised me, especially when the nation is involved in a shooting war and U.S. troops are dying in the effort to stabilize the newly-freed nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the email reply did not answer my one question: Does such U.S. sacrifice constitute "lending a hand" or "giving the finger" to the rest of the world?